Gadling Gear Review: Headphones For All Budgets

Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000 headphones
Polk Audio

A good pair of headphones seems to have become mandatory equipment when traveling these days. Smartphones, tablets and MP3 players have put a host of entertainment options at our fingertips and the headphones we carry with us have an impact on the overall experience. But choosing which models to spend your money on can be a challenge as there are now more options available than ever before. Here are three excellent choices, each in a different price category, that you’ll appreciate having in your carry-on the next time you hit the road.

Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000 ($299.95)
The UltraFocus 8000 headphones from Polk Audio sit squarely at the high end of the portable audio market. They carry a price tag of $300 but deliver numerous features and an incredibly high level of performance that will leave budding audiophiles very happy. These headphones feature active noise cancellation, built-in controls and a microphone for Apple devices, numerous audio adapters and much more.
While the price tag of the UltraFocus 8000’s are likely to give many buyers pause, those who are in the market for high-end headphones will likely be very pleased. Everything about these cans screams quality, starting with the packaging, which conveys the sense that you are buying a luxury item. Lightweight and very comfortable, Polk Audio has spent a lot of time getting the design of these headphones just right and once adjusted to fit, it is easy to forget you even have them on. The plush earpads do an excellent job of sealing out environmental noise and continue to feel good even during extended wear.

Audio performance from these headphones is beyond impressive. They deliver extremely clean, undistorted sound even at very high volume levels. In fact, your ears are likely to beg for mercy long before these headphones begin to show any signs of struggle. In the low-range, bass comes through with impressively solid thumps while the mid- and high-ranges blend nicely, providing an audio experience that is sure to delight music lovers, particularly when looking for respite from a busy airport.

I was also impressed with the active noise-canceling functionality that Polk Audio integrated into these headphones. Powered by two AAA batteries, when switched on this feature blocks out an exceptional amount of ambient background noise, making it easier to hear music, movies or anything else you want to listen to. Active noise canceling is great on an airplane for instance, as it will block out much of the sound generated from the jet engines, which can interfere with your enjoyment of audio. I would have preferred if these headphones were powered by a rechargeable power source rather than replaceable batteries, however, and I was disappointed to learn that they won’t function at all if those batteries go dead. That means if you run out of juice while on a long flight, you won’t be able to listen to anything until the batteries can be replaced. Other active noise-canceling headphones from competitors will allow you to listen even when not powered on and it’s a shame that this high-end model can’t do the same.

The UltraFocus 8000 headphones cleverly integrate audio controls into the outside of the right ear cup giving you the ability to adjust volume, and pause and advance tracks with the quick touch of a button. If you’re listening on an iPhone, you can even answer calls with the built-in microphone, which does an excellent job of picking up the wearer’s voice. After adjusting to the placement of these controls I found I preferred them to an inline remote and mic that most other headphones use.

Polk Audio ships these headphones with an excellent soft case and more adapters than you’ll ever know what to do with. All of those extras help to extend the feeling of purchasing a high-end product, which you would expect out of something in this price range. Make no mistake, the UltraFocus 8000 headphones are expensive but they deliver excellent audio performance, a comfortable fit and good active noise canceling in an attractive and high-quality package. For the audiophile on the go, these are an excellent choice.

Munitio SV earphones
Munitio

Munitio SV Earphones ($129.99)
If the high-end, luxury headphones are out of your price range there are plenty of other options available in the mid-range as well. Take for example the Munitio SV earbuds, which deliver very good performance at a price point that is much more friendly to the wallet. They also have the advantage of slipping into a carry-on bag without adding any extra weight or bulk.

Munitio put a lot of thought into the design of this product even though you wouldn’t necessarily think so at first glance. The flat, tangle-free cord is a nice touch for instance, particularly for travelers who may not always be so careful with storing their earphones when they are in a hurry. An in-line mic and remote allow owners of Apple devices to control their gadgets and make phone calls, while the buds themselves are made from aircraft-grade aluminum that adds durability without weight. They feeling of quality in a compact package is undeniable.

In terms of audio performance the Munitio SV earphones are quite good. They offer a surprising amount of bass for such a small product and mid-range sounds are solid as well. At the high end, however, I noticed that things weren’t quite as pure, although there was no noticeable distortion across the entire spectrum. Overall, most listeners will find these earbuds to offer very clean sound even at high volumes. This isn’t a product designed with the audiophile in mind but they do deliver excellent performance that will exceed the expectations of most consumers.

Since these earbuds are designed to fit snugly into your ear canal, Munitio ships them with three sizes of silicon tips. This helps to dial in a personal fit, although most competitors offer a wider array of choices. As a result, I had a hard time getting one of these earbuds to stay in my ear. If I had a few other size options I’m sure this wouldn’t have been an issue, but since one of my ears fell between sizes, it was tough to keep it securely in place. Without a proper seal, outside noise can trickle in as well, which interferes with audio performance. As a result, the Munitio SV’s didn’t do as good of a job as I would have liked isolating me from background noises. Your mileage will probably vary, however, depending on personal fit.

If you want a quality set of earphones with very good audio performance that won’t break the bank, the Munitio SV are a solid choice. They ship with a nice soft case that makes them easy to take with you wherever you go and the tangle-free cord and in-line remote are welcome touches.

RHA MA150 earphones
RHA

RHA MA150 Earphones ($19.95)
At the low-end of the earphone market, at least in terms of price, are the RHA MA150 earbuds. With a price tag of just $20 you wouldn’t expect much in terms of audio performance but we’ve reviewed several RHA products in the past and have been continually impressed with the quality of the sound they deliver while remaining very affordable. In terms of overall bargains, it is tough to beat their products and the new MA150’s are no exception to that legacy, delivering good sound in a no-frills product that is easy on the wallet.

For a set of inexpensive earphones the MA150’s still feel very solid in your hand. In fact, if someone didn’t tell you how much they cost it would be easy to estimate that their price is twice what it actually is. The cables, silicon tips and earbuds themselves are all very good for this price range and they feel like they’ll have a level of durability beyond what you would expect for $20.

In terms of audio output, these earphones are certainly over achievers. I was impressed with the low-end bass that came through very nicely for such a small and lightweight product. Mid- and high-ranges were also handled well, particularly for a product that is this affordable. Again, the MA150’s perform like a product that is two or three times the price, which is certainly hard to complain about. Set your expectations accordingly and I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised.

As mentioned, these are no-frills earbuds that don’t include a remote, a mic or any other features. They do come with three different sizes of silicon tips, however, and unlike the Munitio SV’s I was able to find a comfortable and solid fit for both ears. If there is one upgrade I’d like to see, it would be the addition of a tangle-free cord like the one found on the offering from Munitio. The cord on the MA150 seems prone to tangling for some reason, which can be frustrating at times.

Designed for the consumer who just wants an inexpensive, yet quality pair of headphones the RHA MA150 earbuds deliver on their promise of good audio performance at a rock-bottom price. You’ll have a difficult time finding earphones that perform at this level in this price range. Sure, they will be overpowered by competitors that cost more, but that’s not the point. For a cheap, dependable and surprisingly good performance you can’t go wrong here.

Gadling Gear Review: Justin Case Rechargeable iPad Battery Case

Justin Case iPad recharger
Innovative Technologies

A few weeks back we reviewed the Props Power case for the iPad, which features a built-in battery that can greatly extend the life of your tablet while on the road. At the time, I thought that it was a unique product that delivered on its promise with the trade-off of also adding a considerable amount of thickness and weight. It turns out that case wasn’t quite as unique as I had originally thought, as there is another option available that offers similar performance in a slightly less bulky package and at a considerable savings. Two things that are difficult to argue against.

The Justin Case Rechargeable Power Case from Innovative Technology is designed to fit the iPad 2 and the iPad with Retina Display. It holds the tablet snugly while providing very good protection from accidental drops or the usual wear and tear that comes along with travel. Made from soft faux leather, the case has a nice feel to it, although no one is likely to ever mistake it for real leather. As you would expect, when seated properly inside the case, the iPad’s various buttons and cameras are unobstructed, allowing full access to all of the tablet’s features. A durable flap covers the screen and is cleverly held in place by a pair of strategically placed magnets. This is a nice touch that provides a little extra protection to the fragile display. A fold out stand on the back of the case also allows you to prop up your device, which comes in very handy when watching videos or making a Facetime call.

One of my main knocks against the Props Power case was that it added a lot of thickness to the otherwise thin and sleek iPad. That is somewhat unavoidable for any case that has a bulky battery built into its form factor and this model is no different. I will say, however, that the Justin Case is thinner than the competition; this makes it a bit easier to compromise portability for extended battery life. This isn’t a product that would ever be described as thin and light, but considering the fact that its target audience is likely to know this ahead of time, I’d say it does a fine job of balancing expectations on all fronts.At the heart of this case is an 11,600-mAh battery, which is slightly smaller than the one found in the Props Power case, but still manages to perform on a similar level. The battery includes a micro-USB port for recharging and a standard USB port for passing that charge on to other devices. Innovative Technologies says that the battery is capable of providing a full recharge to a third generation iPad, the model that I was testing it on. I didn’t find that it was quite capable of putting out that much juice, however, delivering something closer to a 75-percent recharge level. Still, that’s not bad at all and should add an additional seven hours to the life of your tablet.

Justin Case rechargeable iPad case
Innovative Technology

Since the battery has a standard USB port it can be used to recharge just about any modern device. That means while you’re traveling you can use the case to juice up your smartphone, a camera, iPod or a variety of other gadgets. Most will charge about as quickly as they will when plugged into a wall outlet, but higher capacity devices such as the 3rd and 4th generation iPad or similar tablets charge at a much slower rate, which can be disappointing when you really want your iPad fully charged and ready to hit the road.

The Justin Case has its competition beat in a couple of other areas as well. For instance, the Props Power case comes with a charging cable but no power adapter. That means you have to provide your own AC adapter or charge directly from your computer. This case comes with a nice USB wall plug that looks strikingly like Apple’s own iPhone charger only in black. I appreciate the fact that Innovative Technologies saw fit to include it in the box, eliminating the hurdle of finding a way to keep their product charged at all times.

The other area in which the Justin Case has a hands-down advantage is price. While it performs at a very similar level with its competition, it costs $50 less. Innovative Technology has priced their product at $70, which feels like a very fair price for a case that offers the ability to not only charge the tablet that it protects but just about any other device as well. That is a nice convenience to have when you own a smartphone whose battery doesn’t quite make it completely through the day when there isn’t a free outlet anywhere in sight.

While the Justin Case does come with a micro-USB cable that is capable of charging not only its batteries, but also other devices that use that format, if you’re an Apple-fan you’ll need to supply your own 30-pin or lightning cable. That is a small quibble for an otherwise solid product but one that buyers should be aware of before they plunk down their hard-earned cash.

If you’re a frequent traveler who spends a lot of time searching for a power outlet at the airport, the Justin Case may be the answer to your prayers. While it is just an average case on its own, the inclusion of the built-in battery gives it a unique quality that few other products can match. The fact that it does so at an affordable price truly sets it out from the crowd. An iPad equipped with this case could survive a full flight across the Pacific with power to spare, which is a pretty impressive feat really. This case will let you load up your device with all of the movies, music and games you’d like without worrying about running out of power at an inopportune time.

What Would You Do With One Million Loyalty Points?

Loyalty
the Italian voice/Flickr

That’s the question 10 lucky winners will need to decide in Best Western International’s Loyalty Millionaires promotion, a part of their 25th anniversary celebration. Two randomly selected winners will be chosen each week through July 14, each winning one million bonus points to redeem in any way they like, and not just on hotel rooms either.

“Whether it’s a trip with the family or that special something you’ve been saving for, we hope our 10 lucky loyalty millionaires get their summer off to a great start,” said Dorothy Dowling, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Best Western International in a Broadway World article.
With more than 60 redemption options starting at 8,000 points, including free hotel nights, retail gift cards like Starbucks, Target, Home Depot and Amazon, BWR members have countless options to redeem their rewards points. One BWR member recently redeemed their points for retail partner gift cards and used them to buy a tractor.
Redemption options include free hotel nights as well as retail gift cards like Apple, Barnes and Noble, Starbucks, Walmart, Target, Home Depot and Busch Gardens.

But what, exactly, might one million Best Western points get you? We did some calculations for a variety of stuff Gadling readers might want to have or do.For starters, a million points will get you about four months in a Best Western Hotel. But it will also enable buying 200,000 air miles on American, Delta, US Airways or Alaska Airlines. You could also get $3,846 in gift cards from Starbucks, Disney, Outback Restaurants or Dunkin Donuts. Want to spend those million points on gear? You could walk away with a Canon PowerShot A2600, some Beats by Dre Studio High-Definition Headphones, a Samsung 8GB Galaxy 2 Tablet 7″ Screen and tickets to see 400 movies at an AMC Theater with some change leftover.

Read more about Best Western Re
To enter, sign up for the free Best Western Loyalty program then register on the Loyalty Millionaire tab on their Facebook page.

New Loyalty Perks for Smartphone Shoppers

Gadling Gear Review: Eddie Bauer Expedition Flannel Shirt

Eddie Bauer Expedition Flannel
Eddie Bauer

In the world of outdoor and travel apparel there are few names as recognizable as Eddie Bauer. For more than 90 years the company has specialized in making clothing that is designed for travel and adventure, outfitting some famous explorers and mountaineers along the way. The iconic brand has earned itself a reputation for making clothing that is tough, comfortable and dependable, while still managing to perform well in some of the harshest environments on the planet. Whether you’re hanging out on your front porch or traveling to the far corners of the globe, chances are Eddie Bauer makes something you’ll want to take with you. After all, if they can equip teams for the summit of Everest, they can probably keep you happy on your next adventure too.

One of the more classic items in the Eddie Bauer catalog is their Expedition Flannel shirt. This is one of those pieces of gear that easily passes my criteria for the kind of item that I want in my bag when I set out on trip. Since I tend to travel light, everything that goes into my pack needs to be something that is going to be comfortable when I put it on, useful in a variety of situations and will still look as good at the end of the trip as it does at the beginning. The Expedition Flannel does all of that and then some.Built from extremely soft polyester fabrics, this shirt has a trim cut that is designed to fit closely to the body, allowing the wearer to move without restriction while on the go. Any active traveler will appreciate this approach, as there are few things worse than wearing a piece of clothing that feels too confining. The fabrics also resemble traditional flannel in most respects but they perform on a different level than the flannel that we’ve all come to know and love. For instance, the fabrics that Eddie Bauer uses are designed to wick moisture away from the body, helping you to stay dry when you start to work up a sweat. This comes in surprisingly handy in both warm and cool conditions.

In terms of versatility, the Expedition Flannel is a winner as well. It has rustic good looks that make it equally good for strolling the streets of Paris or trekking in the Himalaya. Its classic design doesn’t wader far from the traditional but its use of modern color combinations is both refreshing and bold. It doesn’t hurt that is also packs extremely well, going in and out of your bag without collecting too many wrinkles – something I think we can all appreciate.

Since this is a piece of clothing created by Eddie Bauer, you know it has the durability to hold up to the rigors of the road. The Expedition Flannel was built to accompany you on your travels, whether that is down the block or around the world, and still come back looking as good as new. The level of quality in this shirt allows it to stand up to whatever abuse you give it and come away with barely a scuff on it. I’ve worn mine numerous times, for numerous activities, and it always comes out of the washer looking brand new. Whether you use this shirt for work, play or something in between, it is likely to be in your closet for many years to come.

This kind of quality doesn’t come cheap and Eddie Bauer is without a doubt a premium brand. The Expedition Flannel retails for $80, which puts it on par with similar shirts from competitors, although few of them have the EB pedigree. We all know that good travel gear is worth the price, however, and I think that is most certainly true here. If you buy one of these shirts chances are you’ll be remind yourself about your good taste and wise decisions for a very long time to come.

Gadling Gear Review: Kensington Accessories For iPad And Smartphones

Kensington Accessories: KeyCover
Kensington

Smartphones and tablets have become an important part of our daily lives, putting a wealth of functionality and information at our fingertips. Straight out of the box these devices can do amazing things to keep us entertained and in communication while on the go, but companies like Kensington are making some excellent accessories that can extend that functionality even further and perhaps even enhance it. Here are three such accessories that can make your next road trip even better.

KeyCover Hard Shell Keyboard for iPad ($79.99)
There is no doubt that the iPad is a fantastic device, capable of some amazing things, but its onscreen keyboard can be a major obstacle for those looking to use the tablet to get serious work done. That’s where the KeyCover Hard Shell Keyboard comes in handy. This keyboard connects to your iPad via Bluetooth, instantly turning it into an ultra-portable workstation. With the right apps, it can even rival a laptop in terms of productivity.

Typing on the keyboard takes some getting use to, in part because the keys are smaller than what you find on a laptop. The first few times I put it to the test I found the backspace key was getting the most use as I was continuously correcting mistakes. But as with most things in life, practice makes perfect and before too long my large fingers adapted nicely to the smaller keys and I was able to type away almost as quickly and efficiently as I do on my larger notebook. The keys have a high quality feel to them and they make a nice, reassuring click as you type away. When you get on a roll, you might even forget that you’re actually getting productive work done on an iPad.The KeyCover has a few other tricks up its sleeve that will make it a favorite amongst iPad owners as well. Not only is it an excellent portable keyboard, but it also serves as a highly protective case that snaps snugly over the tablet, encasing it in a solid shell that protects the iPad’s screen very nicely. The case is made from anodized aluminum that looks great and provides a level of protection that you don’t get from most other cases. It can be a bit tricky to get off and on at first but after using it a few times it becomes second nature.

Like Apple’s Smartcover, this case uses magnets to automatically wake or put the iPad to sleep when it is opened and closed. It also has a built-in stand that can hold the iPad in either portrait or landscape mode, which is helpful when trying to get work done, but is great for watching movies or making Facetime or Skype calls too.

As mentioned above, the KeyCover connects to the iPad via Bluetooth (version 3.0), which means that it is an electronic device with its own built-in, rechargeable batteries. Kensington says the keyboard’s battery is rated for 120 hours of use between charges and I’ll have to take their word for it. In my testing I was never able to run the battery down fully, so it is clearly capable of lasting for quite a long time. The downside is that the KeyCover is one more item you’ll need to be sure is charged before you hit the road because it won’t be particularly useful if the battery dies.

If you love your iPad but found its functionality slightly hindered by the lack of a physical keyboard, then you’ll absolutely love the KeyCover. It really is an excellent companion for Apple’s tablet. Similarly, if you’re a road warrior who is looking to lighten your load and leave the laptop behind, the KeyCover can turn your iPad into a device that is far more productive. The keyboard even comes in handy for typing emails, iMessages or just about anything else that requires a lot of text entry. It truly will open up a host of new possibilities for how you use the iPad.

The KeyCover is available for the standard iPad. Owners of the iPad Mini will want to checkout some of Kensington’s other keyboard options for their tablet.

Kensington Accessories: Proximity Tag
Kensington

Proximity Tag ($39.95)
Are you one of those people who is prone to losing your keys? Do you often walk away from a restaurant or coffee shop, leaving your cellphone behind? If so, Kensington’s Proxmity Tag was made for you. This light and thin device is roughly the size of a credit card and is designed to be paired with a Samsung Galaxy smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth, although in theory any Android device should work. Once connected, either the sensor or the phone will alert you when they are no longer close to one another. So for example, you could attach the sensor to your keychain, carry-on bag or just about any other valuable item and if it moves outside of a range of about 30 feet from your smartphone, it will immediately alert you that your valuables have been left behind or taken. On the other hand, should you leave your phone behind somewhere and walk more than 30 feet away, the sensor will sound an alert as well, reminding you to retrieve your device.

Connecting your smartphone to the Proximity Tag is accomplished through an app that is available on the Google Play Store. The app allows you to configure a few options on the Tag itself, although its main use is to pair it with your Android device and to tell the sensor to emit an alarm when you can’t find it. So if you lose your keys and need to discover where they are at any given time, the app will tell the Proximity Tag to emit a sound that makes it easy to quickly track them down.

As mentioned above, Kensington says the Proximity Sensor is compatible with Samsung Galaxy devices, but since they use the Android mobile operating system, I assumed the app would run on any Android device. When installed on a generic Android tablet running the latest version of the OS the app ran fine as far as I could tell, but when I put it on an HTC One it crashed multiple times. I had to borrow a Samsung Galaxy S III to properly test its uses and, as you might expect, it ran without a hitch.

The Proximity Tag is powered by a user replaceable lithium battery that Kensington says should be good for about six months use. Once again, I’ll have to take their word for it, because during my testing it never ran out of juice. It did, however, work as advertised, providing alerts when either the Android device or the backpack that I attached the Tag to passed out of range of one another.

The fact that the sensor is small enough to slip into your wallet is a nice added benefit. That means you can keep it on you at all times and use it as needed. Keep it paired with your phone at all times and connect it to something valuable that you want to keep tabs of as needed. Or better yet, rest assured that you’ll never leave your smartphone or tablet behind again. That is quite a nice level of reassurance for a mere $40.

Kensington Accessories: EVAP Pouch
Kensington

EVAP Wet Electronics Rescue Pouch ($19.99)
Have you ever inadvertently jumped into a swimming pool forgetting you had your iPod in your pocket? How about accidentally dropping your smartphone in a full sink of water? There are few things that can kill an electronic device faster than immersing it in water and usually it means that gadget is gone for good. Fortunately, Kensington makes an accessory that can help with this problem, perhaps saving you hundreds of dollars in repair or replacement costs in the process.

The EVAP emergency pouch is designed to pull moisture out of an electronic device without damaging its delicate components in any way. It contains specially developed drying agents that are specifically made to work with electronics and their effectiveness is nothing short of miraculous.

There really is no trick to using the EVAP, you simply open it up and pull out the two sealed packets that contain the drying agents. Place those packets on either side of the waterlogged device and slip them all back inside and seal the pouch. Kensington says it will take anywhere from 6-24 hours for the process to complete, depending on the device and amount of water involved. A handy indicator on the outside of the EVAP will actually let you know when it has completed the process.

I tried the EVAP with an old iPod Nano I had sitting around my apartment. It still worked but had been replaced by a newer model, so I was willing to sacrifice it under the guise of product testing. I soaked it in a bowl of water for several minutes and when I took it out, it refused to turn on. After blotting it dry with a towel, I sealed it in the pouch and left it inside overnight. The next morning I checked the EVAP right away noticed that it had finished its work. I opened the pouch and took the iPod out and was pleasantly surprised to have it power-up in my hand. The EVAP worked exactly as advertised and my old Nano was back from the dead.

The EVAP is one of those products you hope you never need but you’re glad you have when you do. It is super easy to use, worked great in my test and may save you hundreds of dollars, not to mention endless heartbreak. The product is just $19.95, so it isn’t exactly expensive. It would be a good thing to keep around the house in case of an emergency and if you happen to own a boat, I’d store one there as well. Additionally, if you’re taking a trip to a destination where you’ll be spending plenty of time around the water, you may want to play it safe and have one in your suitcase as well. It could turn out that you’re very cautious and won’t need one, but this is the kind of product that is the epitome of “better safe than sorry.”

There you have it – three very unique and different products from one company. Each works well in its own right and are likely to make customers happy. Kensington’s reputation for creating innovative and functional products continues.